Fine Gael today has no sense of how to become competitive outside its own comfort zone, writes Gerard Howlin.

FINE GAEL’s parliamentary party meets this evening to hear from Enda Kenny about his intentions. For nearly two weeks, incessant noise has saturated the airwaves about his leadership and his would-be successors.

There is a lot of talk about who will lead Fine Gael, but almost none about what the party stands for. Several say publicly their leader should go, more say as much off the record. But nobody speaks of where Fine Gael should be led. For a party that prefers gravitas to any other accessory, the conversation has been as vacuous as it has been disorderly.

Some of this is not surprising. Fine Gael is as much about inherited values as future vision. In an intangible sense, it is different to all other parties.

In their own world view, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin personify the nation, or the national struggle. Their goal is an unrealised but mysteriously attainable national unity. In contrast, their affinity with the state is equivocal.

Parties of the left posit values of equality that allow them claim all the people as a cause. Fine Gael doesn’t seek to personify the nation. After the civil war, they found themselves in the curious position of being the victors who didn’t write history. It doesn’t promulgate universal values as a framework for belief either. Its corner stone is the State, an object of only limited affection. Upstanding personalises are its credentials. Verification of those credentials is a largely self-referential, inherited process.

All parties have a tribal sense, a suspicion of outsiders or the newly arrived. Politics at every level attracts more than average levels of competitive, conspiratorial and contrarian people. But, if only intermittently, there is an evangelical gene in the body politic. Certainly Fine Gael is keen to recruit new people, and in periods has done so successfully. Under Garrett FitzGerald after 1977, a swathe of new candidates enlisted, which sustained the party until the electoral debacle of 2002.

Garrett FitzGerald
Garrett FitzGerald

Enda Kenny’s leadership was reinforced for nine years in opposition by his capacity to strengthen the party grass roots. No, it is not that new people are kept out, it is that different types of people too seldom join.

Fine Gael today is socially a nearly pristine duplicate of what it was 80 years ago. With consistent support in opinion polls over recent months in the mid-20s, it now about fills its historical redoubt again. And historically, it was usually in opposition.

In all the circumstances then, it seems astonishing there is no apparent debate on the future of the party, or wider discussion about what it stands for. In government after 2011, it made two fundamental mistakes. Firstly it over interpreted the scale of its victory as unqualified endorsement instead of, in part, a resounding rejection of Fianna Fáil. Secondly, it devoted considerable political capital to restoring a bankrupt state, instead of reforming it. The peculiarly self-referential nature of its internal conversation, the particularly controlling nature of its leadership under Kenny meant it too easily slid into the series of disastrous political mistakes that were its last general election campaign. Over five years to 2016, a landslide of new TDs, sitting with prior incumbents who too long enjoyed the electoral comfort of campaigning from opposition, underestimated the requirement of knocking on doors, and of being on the street while being in government. There were exceptions, but they proved the rule. Unprepared to change the system, too few in Fine Gael worked it assiduously, as required.

The lack of traction on the ground was overlain by an election campaign that misread the public mood, especially in rural Ireland. A lack of professional organisational capacity was aggravated by a tone that was condescending and indifferent.

Fine Gael had somehow failed to notice that farming was no longer the economic driver outside the Pale. The concerns of people in terraced houses, in small towns and larger ones, went unheeded. It is not that there was no largesse, it is that the concerns of many people simply were not addressed in the conversation.

Fine Gael has historically only rarely expanded beyond its base. It won 36% of the vote in 2011. The previous occasion it exceeded 30% was in November 1982, with 39%, which was also the last occasion previously it won an election while gaining seats. In 1994, it entered government without an election. In 2016, it pulled off the extraordinary feat of re-engineering a government after electoral debacle. But, ultimately, parties depend on votes to get into government. For Fine Gael, getting votes in a changing society — that it has not changed with — depends ultimately on a different appeal than theretofore. The fact is that people on the margins economically have never been persuaded by Fine Gael, or approached by them with any degree of consistency.

The Fine Gael project is not simply dependent on holding the political centre, by inherent inclination it instinctively cleaves to its better upholstered parts. Individual TDs such as Noel Rock in Ballymun, or Paschal Donohoe in Dublin’s north inner city are outliers, and potentially vulnerable ones. Because Fine Gael is based, actually defined, by an unspoken social symmetry, it never succeeded in becoming a party of social aspiration. About 60% will likely vote for Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, or like-minded Independents, based on current polls. This is the parameter of the real contest for Fine Gael. Today, as it waits to hear from its long-serving, but departing leader, it has no sense of how to become competitive, outside its own comfort zone.

Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and Paschal Donohoe
Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and Paschal Donohoe

If I were a Fine Gael backbencher, I would have two questions. The first would be for Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar; namely how they plan to lead Fine Gael by securing a second seat in their respective constituencies of Cork South Central and Dublin West. Both are tough asks, but an essential litmus test for any leader, who would immediately have to ask senior colleagues to do the same. The second question, and it’s related to the first, is how Fine Gael as a party becomes a vehicle for social aspiration instead of being a benchmark of assurance for those already arrived.

Because Fine Gael posited economic assurance in opposition to Fianna Fáil after 2008, it gained massively in support at the expense of its main opponent. Because thereafter it fundamentally failed to address, let alone represent struggling but aspiring voters, it lost dramatically in 2016.

Shell-shocked since, feeling a little like Churchill after losing the election in 1945, it is bewildered in a world that has moved on without them.

How could they have saved the State, and have their achievement unrecognised? The answer is easy. It is not enough to be a safe haven for a once-in-a-generation storm. A party that trades in power, deals in aspiration, and is on the doorstep selling it.

PS: Those doors do not have driveways.

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